The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

SZA in the Sea

Your favorite Arts Reporter duo, Lainey and Sofia, cover SZA’s underwater adventure at United Center.
SZA+sits+at+the+edge+of+a+suspended+platform+at+her+United+Center+performance.+
Bill Smith
SZA sits at the edge of a suspended platform at her United Center performance.

Suddenly, the screens scattered around Chicago’s United Center stage, which was lit up with puffy clouds. A giant screen lifted to reveal SZA perched on the edge of a diving board, in reference to the cover of her newest album, SOS. The chart-topping artist, whose music combines contemporary R&B, hip-hop, and neo-soul, was dressed in an oversized blue hockey jersey as she stared pensively into the distance. She opened with “PSA,” a short track originally released as a teaser to SOS. The screen lowered, obscuring SZA and replacing her with an image of her shadow sitting on the diving board. With the final note of “PSA,” SZA’s shadow tossed the microphone into the water and jumped after it.

An hour before, the rising artist d4vd had made his own mark on the stage. Just 18 years old, his 2023 EP Petals to Thorns has catapulted him into the heart of the indie-pop and R&B scene. Hands thrown back and chest open wide, he paced the stage in an oversized black hoodie and loose black-and-white pants. He closed his set with the hit “Romantic Homicide,” which features a melancholy guitar beat and moody vocals. On stage, d4vd was calm and captivating; he only stands to grow in influence and popularity.

After SZA hit the water, the crowd cheered in anticipation as the lights dimmed. They clicked back on a moment later, and SZA emerged, sitting on the deck of a run-down fishing boat. She shimmered in a silver top and loose shorts, the most beautiful deckhand in history. Flanked by four battered-looking dancers whose black crew-wear was disheveled and ripped, she moved into “Seek and Destroy.” Starting slow, “Seek and Destroy” features a steady electric key baseline that builds into an energetic hip-hop beat, which transferred nicely into “Notice Me,” a piece centered around SZA’s vocals. In all of her songs, but especially “Notice Me,” SZA transitions seamlessly between calm mumble rap and airy vocals, which adds depth of sound and complexity to her work. In addition to combining rap and lyrical vocals, SZA often creates variety in her music by collaborating with other artists. For instance, in “Used,” SZA masterfully combines her vocal stylistic range with that of rapper Don Toliver, making for a conversational exchange in not just lyrics but also style and texture.

SZA’s artistry was evident in the delightful incorporation of storytelling into the stage design. The set’s imagery was most definitely a callback to her album cover, which pictures SZA sitting atop a diving board in the middle of the ocean. As the show progressed, the set and props depicted the singer’s journey to the bottom of the ocean. She started her performance atop a boat, which led to SZA floating above the crowd in an orange life raft suspended from the ceiling. The life raft inched slowly toward a lighthouse at the back of the stadium but suddenly slipped back toward the sea-stage.

As she climbed onto the raft, she noted, “I woke up sad this morning, and this song about my ex-fiancé doesn’t help.” Perhaps her ocean-themed staging was alluding to a near miss in her love life, almost making it back to land before being pulled to the bottom of the sea. But, she remarked, despite waking up sad, “y’all lifting my spirits.” She seemed to truly appreciate the energy her fans provided her, and her sensitive and caring personality was demonstrated through her engagement with the crowd. After the show ended, she invited several fans backstage to get to know them on a personal level, and to, as she explained, help overcome the isolation and shyness she sometimes feels onstage. Calling to her assistants on the ground by name, she decided on one fan because she remembered making eye contact and singing with them as their enthusiasm for her work fed hers. While no one else in the audience could tell exactly whom she was looking at and singing with, SZA remembers those who are particularly engaged with her music, and she rewards them.

With her stunning vocal range, it is obvious why SZA is a successful artist. Her melismatic high notes coupled with raspy, low notes make for an intoxicating sound. However, at this particular show, it seemed as though she was holding back on some of her higher notes as she occasionally pointed the microphone toward the crowd, signaling us to sing for her. Admittedly, we were a little disappointed; it felt like we were missing out on some of her most legendary high notes. However, at the end of the show, when the lights came back on, SZA emerged from backstage to thank everyone for coming to the show to support her. In the middle of her many thanks to the audience, she mentioned that she was dealing with a bad case of bronchitis. With this in mind, her inability to hit her high notes made perfect sense. Barring two or three notes throughout the show, her ability to sing as well as she did while simultaneously performing challenging choreography made me respect her immensely as an artist.

With her range of music, spellbinding stage presence, and sweet personality, it’s easy to see why so many of her fans were eager to follow SZA out to sea.

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